Playwright Peter Arnott discusses The Infamous Brothers Davenport
Arnott and Vox Motus to resurrect the 19th century American spiritualists
This new show from playwright Peter Arnott and Vox Motus promises to be part Dickens, part Derren Brown. It focuses on real-life American magicians William and Ira Davenport, who in the 1860s were a central part of the spiritualist movement, which first popularised public attempts to communicate with the spirit world through events like séances.
Arnott is currently writer in residence at the Traverse Theatre as well as the Genomics Forum at Edinburgh University, and his last new work at the Lyceum was 2003’s celebrated The Breathing House. Since being approached about this new project by Vox Motus’ Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison, who also performs as a magician, he has undertaken detailed research into American spiritualist families.
‘All these stories have a very similar arc,’ Arnott says, ‘in that you have people escaping poverty through performance basically. We would think of Spiritualism as being superstitious and old fashioned but actually it’s completely modern, a 19th century invention. Houdini, for instance, was intent on debunking spiritualists but he was actually doing it because he was desperate to talk to his dead mother. There’s all these strange paradoxes so we just took a big mixture of stuff and started throwing it together.’
Although the brothers’ back story has been largely be fictionalised, this plot will intersect with performances of their act, the secrets of which – true to the magician’s code – Arnott is unaware. ‘It’s been fantastically exciting,’ he says. ‘It’s been a very different experience working with Jamie and Candice because they’re so visual in the way they conceive things – it’s almost been like writing a film, from frame to frame. We’re going to have the ushers dressed in costume, audience participation, people writing messages to the spirits – those kinds of things. It’s like going to see their act in the 1860s.’
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh Thu 19 Jan–Sat 11 Feb; Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Tue 14–Sat 18 Feb.